Anarchists, community, and food

In the earlier years of my life I decided I was an anarchist.  I celebrated anything that suggested the end of conformist society, the destruction of government, and the death of capitalism.  My highest goal was to wake the TV-hypnotized consumer zombies up out of their status-quo stupor.

Naturally, to a young idealist, the ends justify the means—to make an omelette, you have to break a few eggs.  If a few feelings got hurt, or property got damaged, it meant nothing as long as I snapped somebody out of their quotidian assumptions for just a moment, or even better if I struck a symbolic blow against the imperialist corporate machine.  This way of life was encouraged by books like The Monkey Wrench Gang, and visible displays by groups such as Earth First or Greenpeace.

As I got older, I started to notice that many of these actions attacked the wrong enemy.  I first noticed it in myself—I’d rail against some perceived evil, only to find out that I had missed several important facts, seen only one facet of the true situation, and made myself look like an ass, without achieving any of my intended goals.  Once I became aware of this problem, I realized it was going on all around me—most of the angry young men and women out there were striking out blindly at anything that resembled their conception of the enemy, without regard for whether the attack actually helped their cause at all, and without regard for any resulting negative impact on the community in the area.

I struggled with this dilemma for several years.  Finally, in the mid-1990’s, I saw something that changed my perspective altogether.  I lived in Eugene Oregon at the time, in a northern neighborhood that was associated with lower incomes, minorities, and residents who had been there for a very long time (as opposed to the more affluent, all-white, and transient population nearer to the university).  In this neighborhood we had only one grocery store, a health-food co-op.  As in most such stores, the goods were organic, gourmet, and priced higher than what you’d find at a large chain grocery.  The local “Black Army” anarchists, all of them white kids from middle-class families, decided that this co-op was the center and symbol of gentrification in the area; that gentrification was inherently evil; and that the best thing they could do for the neighborhood would be to attack the grocery.  They threw rocks through the windows, pelted store employees with paint and eggs, keyed their cars, spraypainted slogans on the walls, and left notes with actual death threats.  This went on for the entire year that I lived in that neighborhood.

That’s when I stopped calling myself an anarchist.  Those kids were harassing and destroying the only grocery store in the neighborhood, and why?  So they could stop gentrification?  That wasn’t going to work. Even if the co-op closed its doors and a more blue-collar grocery opened in its place, affluent people that had planned to buy houses there would still do so!  Gentrification wasn’t the fault of the grocery, and killing the grocery wasn’t even remotely a solution.  How would the neighborhood have improved, or was it just supposed to be worse?  These kids would not have been satisfied anyway because they’d have to bike all the way across town to get their vegan chocolate, kombucha, and organic sliced seitan.  Did they plan to leave the neighborhood themselves, to be nearer to the groceries they wanted?  Or was it just important to ensure that nobody in the neighborhood could have anything good, that even the poorer people would not have access to organic vegetables?  Or was it all just because the food in the co-op was expensive, and the anarchists believed everything should be cheap or free, regardless of the cost to manufacture and distribute?

I’ve seen many, many similar instances since then.  At the G-20 summit in Seattle not so long ago, a friend of mine joined the demonstrations.  He posted a video of anarchists clashing with the police, and wrote “F*** you, Obama, I’m done with you!”  I’m not saying Obama is so perfect, but what did he have to do with the fight between Seattle police and anarchist demonstrators?  Would any other president, whether Republican, Green, or independent, have refused to host the G-20?  Would any other president have refused to keep the attending world leaders safe from attacks?  Basically my friend, and everyone else wearing a black bandanna, was wildly angry and frustrated—and that’s understandable!  But nothing constructive came out of the attacks, the clashes with police, or him saying he’s “done with” Obama.  It was all a misdirected blast of emotion, and a waste of resources.

Just a few weeks ago, in my neighborhood, one of my favorite restaurants shut down.  One of the reasons cited by the owner/chef was the constant harassment, graffitti, and property damage from local anarchists that charged him with gentrification.  Again, who benefited here?  Is the neighborhood better off with one less restaurant?  Did the attacks on the restaurant stop local gentrification?  Not even slightly!  Did anyone who was considering buying a home in the area, or starting a business there, stop and think to themselves “hey, that restaurant closed down, maybe I should invest my money elsewhere?”  NO!  In fact another bourgeoise restaurant took over the location right away.  The attacks, the graffitti, they achieved nothing.  Nothing constructive, anyway.  Nothing that improved the quality of life in the neighborhood.  Nothing that helped the lower-income residents.  Nothing that has anything to do with the espoused ideals of the anarchist kids.

Now, we get to the trickiest part, which is where you ask me “so what should we do instead?”  That’s a genuinely very tough problem.  Voting helps a little, but is not very satisfying, and the “good guy” politicians usually turn out to be just as bad as the previous crooks.  “Voting with your dollars” is very effective, if you have a lot of dollars—the problem is that most of us don’t have enough money to make much of an impact.  Bumper stickers and window signs are pathetically ineffectual.  Demonstrating in the streets is a good outlet, as long as there’s no violence to person or property—and I say that not out of some adherence to Ghandi or Dr. King, but rather to call out the utter pointlessness of such misdirected violence, and the sad mistake of hurting people who are not really the enemy.

The enemy is thoughtless consumerism.  Without thoughtless consumerism, the corporations have no power.  Without thoughtless consumerism, the difference between classes is reduced, which in turn reduces the impact of gentrification.  Without thoughtless consumerism, there would be no war for oil.

Stores are not the enemy.  They do not cause thoughtless consumerism.  Do not attack individual stores.  Police are not the enemy.  They are hired by the community specifically to protect against attacks on personal property.  If you don’t attack other people’s property, the police will not bother you.  Construction crews and logging crews are not the enemy.  Without construction, there is no place to manufacture sliced savory seitan.  Without logging, you don’t get toilet paper.  Of course, there are much better alternatives to traditional logging, such as carefully-managed farms of quick-growing trees, or better yet high-yield fiber sources such as ragweed, hemp, or bamboo.  But will spiking a tree encourage the development of those more efficient and ecological alternatives?  NO!  It will only cause harm, and it won’t even protect the tree beyond the short duration of the attack.  So do not attack construction sites or loggers.

The very best things you can do are:

  • Educate consumers, and direct your diatribes and demonstrations toward showing people a better way to live and provide goods for their families.  Make it a positive thing, demonstrating how life can be better for all of us, rather than just spitting negativity around.
  • Put all of your resources toward developing both the goods and the consumer market for sustainable materials.  The paper industry will not switch to high-yield non-tree fibers for pulp until they can see profits from it.  So make it profitable!  Promote the goods, promote the sustainable methods, get a science degree and develop newer and better pulp systems that increase efficiency without ravaging the old growth woods.  Greater efficiency equals greater profit.  Yes, there are people and companies doing this today, but not enough of them–and possibly, not yet including you!  Take a look at your own actions and decide.

And most importantly, if you are wearing a black bandanna and throwing bricks or scrawling graffitti, you are not part of the solution.  Taking food away from people is not any way to improve a neighborhood.  If you think keying the windows of a restaurant is going to make life better for anyone, please ask yourself exactly how that’s supposed to make sense.  Try to think of something constructive to do, that will actually make life tangibly better for the lower-income people in your area.  If housing costs are getting too high, go volunteer with Habitat For Humanity, or start a mortgage-payment relief fund, or open a tool library and offer help with renovating lower-income homes.  If the local organic grocery is too expensive, start your own organic grocery that is cheaper.

Go ahead!  What’s stopping you?

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